Grading Offenses

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

The criminal law recognizes several different grades of both felonies and misdemeanors. Generally, a felony is a serious crime that is punishable by more than a year in prison. A misdemeanor is a less serious offense that is punishable by less than a year. Sentences for misdemeanors are usually served in county jails.

The Arkansas Example

For example, Arkansas law recognizes an offense as a felony under two circumstances. An offense is a felony if it is designated as such by the criminal code, or if it is designated as such by another statute that is not part of the criminal code. Arkansas uses a letter system to grade felony offenses, based on seriousness. Class Y felonies are the most serious, followed by Class A felonies, Class B felonies, Class C felonies and Class D felonies. Anything graded below the least serious grade of felony (Class D) is classified as a misdemeanor.

As with felonies, misdemeanors are graded using a letter system. An offense is legally defined as a felony if it is explicitly made so by the criminal code or other statutes, or if a sentence of imprisonment is authorized upon conviction and the offense has not been designated as a felony. Misdemeanors range from the most serious being a Class A misdemeanor to the least serious being a Class C misdemeanor. Rare offenses can be considered as “unclassified” misdemeanors.

Lesser Offenses

The least serious offenses are considered violations. An offense is a violation (as opposed to a felony or misdemeanor) “if the statute defining the offense provides that no sentence other than a fine, or fine or forfeiture, or civil penalty is authorized upon conviction.” A culpable mental state is not required if “the offense is a violation unless a culpable mental state is expressly included in the definition of the offense.” Because violations do not require proof of a mental element, they are known as strict liability offenses.

Crimes can be classified in many ways, such as grouping them by subject matter.  The most serious crimes in our society, for example, like battery and rape, do harm to a person, so they are often classified as crimes against persons.  Crimes that deprive people of their property by stealing or destroying it are often classified as property crimes.  These classifications are mostly done for convenience, and college professors often use them to organize courses and outline textbooks.  The classifications are also used to organize legal codes.

Another (perhaps more important) way of classifying crimes is by the severity of the crime and the proportionally severe punishment.  The classification of crimes by the severity of the punishment is known as grading. Most jurisdictions classify crimes according to three major categories.

Infractions are crimes that are not considered very serious and that usually only result in a fine.  Speeding, failure to yield, and littering are common examples. These minor breaches of the law are also known as violations.  These are the most variable of all laws because they can be created by local governments in the form of city ordinances and similar codes.  Violations result in a fine the vast majority of the time, and violators often are allowed to plead nolo contendere by signing the back of a traffic citation and returning it to the clerk of the court along with a money order for the fine amount.



Misdemeanors are the next most serious category of crimes.  Misdemeanors are usually punished by fines and up to a year in a local jail (as opposed to a state prison).  Felonies are the most serious crimes and have the harshest punishments. A felony is punishable by more than a year in prison, as well as by fines and other punishments.  Legal scholars often use the terms malum in se and malum prohibitum to differentiate the nature of the offender’s criminal intent.  Malum in se crimes are offenses that are generally regarded as “evil in themselves.”  Rape and murder are common examples. Crimes that are merely prohibited by the government for administrative or regulatory reasons are known as malum prohibitum offenses.  Malum in se crimes are punished with society’s most severe sanctions, such as life in prison and the death penalty.



Felonies are usually designated as such because of the heinous nature of the required intent, such as the intent to cause the death of an innocent person.  They can also be designated as such because of the extreme harm caused by the act. Such is the case with the loss of life, grievous bodily injury, and the destruction of extremely valuable property.  Because of the severity of such crimes, the full array of sentencing options are available to the courts. Not only does a felony conviction expose the offender to long prison sentences and other punishments, but the “criminal record” follows the felon for life.  Felons often find it difficult to find jobs and are barred from participating in certain careers at all. They may also be denied certain constitutional rights, such as the right to vote and the right to own a gun.


References and Further Reading

Felony.” World of Forensic Science.

Misdemeanor.” World of Forensic Science.

“Misdemeanor.” Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  08/17/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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